Gov. Paul LePage sent a letter to Maine’s 16 cou nt y sheriffs Tuesday ordering them to cooperate with detainer requests from federal immigration authorities or face removal from office.

The Republican governor said in a radio interview on Monday that he may remove two Maine sheriffs from office for what he called a lack of cooperation with federal immigration officials, but his office said he hasn’t begun the process of removing any of them.

LePage told sheriffs Tuesday that if an undocumented immigrant was released from a county jail after a request from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold them past a scheduled release date, he would move to remove that sheriff from office.

The governor’s actions came after Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce sent a letter to ICE this month saying that he would hold inmates past scheduled release dates only if the agency also submits a warrant.

Joyce, a Democrat, has cited constitutional concerns around false imprisonment. LePage didn’t name the sheriffs that he’s targeting on Monday, but he told conservative radio host Howie Carr on Tuesday that Joyce prompted his actions. He didn’t name other sheriffs.

But York County Sheriff William King and Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry agreed with Joyce’s stance in interviews on Monday and Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant has told Maine Public that his policy is the same as Joyce’s. All three are Democrats.

The Maine Constitution allows the governor to remove a sheriff after a complaint, due notice and a hearing, if he finds they are “not faithfully or efficiently performing any duty” imposed on them by law. Sheriffs in Maine are elected at the county level.

“If the sheriffs refuse to comply with state and federal law, I am authorized to take additional action to remove them from office under the Maine Constitution,” LePage said in his letter.

President Donald Trump has made cracking down on illegal immigration a priority for his administration and other states have struggled with ICE’s detainer requests. In July, Massachusetts’ high court ruled that the state couldn’t hold inmates simply to allow the federal government time to arrest them.

Mary-Anne LaMarre, the executive director of the Maine Sheriffs Association, said Tuesday that sheriffs haven’t looked at the letter as a body, so the group wasn’t prepared to comment. Attorney General Janet Mills declined comment through a spokesman.

In 2011, as one of his first acts as governor, LePage overturned decrees made in 2004 and 2005 by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci that barred state officials from asking about immigration status when they come into contact with members of the public.

At first, Baldacci’s order included law enforcement officials, but that provision was later amended out of the order. LePage’s 2011 order — which triggered outcry from civil libertarians — called on state employees and officials to cooperate with federal officials “on all matters pertinent to immigration.”

Sheriffs aren’t state employees, but LePage’s letter connected his 2011 executive order to a section of Maine law that says sheriffs “shall obey” law enforcement orders from a governor.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...